The consultation on closing ticket offices at rail stations ends on 26 July. What is being proposed is the closure of many ticket offices at railway stations. If you are a regular rail traveller you may have strong views about this with regard to your local station. Even if you do not use the railway much, you should still be concerned, as this is a national asset, and rail travel is much more climate-friendly than using private cars. Anything which deters people from opting to travel by train is therefore not a good thing.
How many travellers might be deterred? It is claimed that only about 12% of rail travellers use ticket offices these days. The rest buy online, and then either collect their ticket at the station ticket machine (tvm), or load the e-ticket onto a keycard or their phone. What are the reasons why these 12% do not move with the times? Some have to use cash. Some cannot use smart phones. Some need further information about complicated journeys and their options. How would these travellers cope without a ticket office?
Some train operating companies (TOCs) are already moving their staff out of the ticket offices. In the North of England, they call them “journey makers”. They rove around the barriers and the forecourts to assist passengers. At Southeastern stations, they do not enjoy that title, but I have found plenty of help whenever I have faced difficulties with the switch to keycards and smart phones, either at the barriers or on the trains from the ticket inspectors.
They obligingly peer at my phone screen and tell me what to press to make the purchased ticket visible with its QR code. After about a month of this help, I am now quite adept. Also on enquiring about train schedules for the day, one obliging platform official used his nifty portable machine to print out my options complete with the times and destinations.
My experience with the Southeastern keycard is not so happy. After a month of using it, my Southeastern app stopped giving me the option. But this keycard is still much promoted by signs at Ashford station, even one above the ticket office offering help with the keycard. But when I tried to ask for this, standing beneath that very notice, I was curtly told not to ask about something that would put her out of a job! Clearly not someone with ambitions to become redesignated as a journey-maker!
Easy Access to Purchase of Rail Products
Regulations regarding ticket offices are to be found in the Ticketing and Settlement Agreement (TSA) of 23 July 1995, clause 6-18(1)a, which states an operator may change the hours of its Ticket office if,
“the change would represent an improvement on current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness and members of the public would continue to enjoy widespread and easy access to the purchase of Rail Products.”
Transport Focus, which is the body charged with research on public transport and with this consultation, refers to this clause, and comments that this means any change in ticket office operation must fulfil these criteria:
- The public can easily buy tickets, with regard to product range, support available, and help for those with no smart phone or card.
- Passengers can still use booked assistance
- Passengers can still get help at times of disruption
- Passengers feel safe
- Passengers are not penalised if they could not buy a ticket at a station
- Passengers can continue to use facilities at a station such as toilets, waiting room, lifts and car-park
With regard to (6) Southeastern has already gone ahead with abolishing ticket offices and relying on the machine at the station entrance in many rural stations. These are the stations where neither waiting room nor toilet has been retained. So the public here rightly suspect that cutting the ticket office means more cuts to facilities. To make it worse, for travellers on Southeastern on the Charing Cross route, the toilets on the trains are frequently announced as being out of use, yet this is not a statistic collected by Transport Focus at all.
I attended the AGM of Railfuture last Saturday. After the usual AGM business, the main presentation was about the ticket office closures, entitled, “It’s the people and the services that matter, not the glass.”
The gist of it is that we should not just oppose this proposal bluntly as “cuts to service”. The process is flawed, and none of the alternatives offered seem perfect, but our responses should be detailed and specific. Railfuture, as a campaigning organisation for rail, can generate response to the consultation at three levels:
- At a national level via the directors of Railfuture (who are all individuals who have been voted in because of their involvement in railway operations for many years)
- At the level of the regions, that is the various TOCs. The regional branches of Railfuture can pull together those responses
- Specific stations, as members may have views about the development of the stations they use. Different size stations would obviously have different needs. Some deal mainly with regular travellers, for instance, while others may have to cope with many confused tourists.
Closing ticket offices could be regarded as just more cuts, as Great Britain getting poorer. It is the government response to reduced train travel, industrial disruption, growing public debt etc. The Government subsidises the railways at about £17bn per year (2021), but their investment in infrastructure is so inadequate that it is as if they expected it all to keep in working order for 200 years, said one Railfuture member. Ian Brown, a leader on rail policy, commented that there can be two types of overall government of railways: those that see rail as a national asset to grow the economy, and those who want to make cuts to save money. Unfortunately those in charge currently are in favour of cuts.
Seize the opportunity
But we could see this rushed consultation as an opportunity to show the government that we care about this national asset. There is an urgent need to increase rail travel rather than pour resources into more roads and gridlock of private cars. All over Europe there are incentives now to use trains as the most climate-friendly means of long-distance transport.
Now is not the time to fight about ticket offices. We need to get lots of people bringing forward creative suggestions about how to make trains the favoured travel option, and our local stations as user-friendly as possible. So readers please send in your comments to Transport Focus during this next week. Note the rail union, RMT, are handing out leaflets, see photo above, about these closures, and this is one of the reasons for the rail strike. Many stations in Kent have already reduced their hours at the ticket office or have no staff at all at the station.